Saturday, August 22, 2009

Book review and stamp of the day: Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson

The book Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson is not what you expect from the title. Sure, it is about growing up and tending to a lighthouse, but that is not really the point. Her words and sentences are usually not long, not complicated, and oh so beautiful. Winterson is known for her unusual, lyrical writing and this is the first book I have ever read by her. I read it straight through, it captured me. The story is several stories weaving between an old blind lighthousekeeper, an orphaned girl named Silver, an unhappy minister with a light and dark side to him and two separate lives as well, and with Darwin and Robert Louis Stevenson mingled in here and there. It is not a simple story, it is not just a story, it is bigger than that and it is about love and time through life and death. Here are some parts I really liked.

"Salts. My home town. A sea-flung, rock-bitten, sand-edged shell of a town. Oh, and a light house."

"But today when the sun is everywhere, and everything solid is nothing but its own shadow, I know that the real things in life, the things I remember, the things I turn over in my hands, are not houses, bank accounts, prizes or promotions. What I remember is love - all love - love of this dirt road, this sunrise, a day by the river, the stranger I met in a cafe. Myself, even, which is the hardest thing of all to love, because love and selfishness are not the same thing. It is easy to be selfish. It is hard to love who I am. No wonder I am surprised if you do."

"If the earth's history was fossil-written, why not the universe? The moon, bone-white, bleached of life, was the reolic of a solar system once planeted with Earths. He thought the whole of the sky must have been alive once, and some stupidity or carelessness had brought it to this burnt-out, warmless place. [...] Now the sky was a dead sea, and the stars and the planets were memory-points, like Darwin's fossils. There were archives of catastrophe and mistake. "

I have always been fascinated with lighthouses. They are unreachable in a way, even if they are on land. They tower over you, provide protection for seafarers, but are distant buildings for the land bound people. Once in France, many years ago, I saw an exhibit at a photo gallery of remote lighthouses in storms. The photos must have been taken with helicopters, and on one you could see a lighthouse surrounded about giant waves about the crash and a tiny person standing in an open door at the bottom of it - hopefully ready to close the door the second after the photo was taken so he wouldn't be pulled off by the strength of the waves when they passed by. Lighthouses provide refuge and safety, but are in themselves isolated places, what a contradiction. Tove Jansson's wonderful book Moominpappa at Sea ('Pappan och havet') is also a tribute to lighthouses and lighthousekeeping.

I think Winterson's Lighthousekeeping is really about living your life, in isolation and not, in fear and not, and with time and stories drifting by.

Here is a suitable stamp of the day, a recent issue from the US of Edward Hopper's painting The Long Leg. The lighthouse in the distance is Cape Cod's Long Point Lighthouse in Massachusetts. Hopper liked lighthouses too, of course.

PS. I found the photo of the French lighthouse - it is by Jean Guichard and is of Jument lighthouse.

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